Aug 20, 2019

How I do meal planning

A few days back, I posted a question on my Instagram Stories - 
"What do you find most challenging about home cooking on a daily basis?"

Nearly 90% of the responses were all related to this one important task - "Deciding what to cook". For years, I have faced this challenge. Every morning, I would open my fridge and wonder what to cook. I slowly shifted to planning at least the next day's breakfast and lunch before going to bed that night. That solved the problem for most part but then my daughter's school timing changed last year, due to which her after-school snacks has become an important meal to plan ahead. She comes home quite hungry and I need to make sure that I have prepared something ready for her.
Starting Jan this year, I was diligently planning a weekly menu every Sunday evening using pen and paper. This became such a game changer as it saved a lot of time from thinking about the dreaded question - "What to cook?". Then summer vacations came and I stopped writing down the meal plan. Once school reopened, I didn't write down a meal plan every week but I came up with a generic meal plan template. Weekday meals are mostly on autopilot and so this template has been quite helpful for me. 

  1. I usually grind idli batter on Monday nights. So my Tue breakfast is usually idli. And I usually pair it with a sambhar, which we would have it for lunch as well.
  2. I prefer to soak channa/rajma or other lentils over the weekend. So my Monday lunch is usually channa masala with phulkas / channa pulao.
  3. After-school snack menu is mostly decided by D. She is very strict about her pasta on Mondays and pancakes on Tuesdays 😉 
  4. I prefer to have paneer once a week and chapathis/phulkas twice a week. So that is taken care of in this template
  5. Usually, I either bake a cake or deep fry bajjis on Friday evenings. So we end up having a light soup for dinner on Fri nights.
  6. Weekend breakfast and lunch menus are usually like this - there will be pooris for breakfast and one medicinal lunch. I might swap the menus for Sat and Sun, depending on whether we are heading out for some errands.
  7. If I want to try a new dish, I usually try out during the weekends. ONLY tried and tested recipes during weekdays.
  8. I incorporate fruits and simple veg salads on a daily basis. So I don't write them down specifically.

I usually stick to this template 80-90% of the time and it is quite helpful for me to eat healthy and not slog in the kitchen for a long time. We eat out 1-2 times a week, mostly during weekends.

Please note that this is based on what my family likes to eat. I'm sharing these ideas so you can customize it based on how you seem fit according to your schedule, food preferences etc. There is enough scope for variety within this template. Hope you find this useful.

Aug 19, 2019

V-Nourish Health Drink Review

Regular readers of my blog would have guessed my top two favorite categories of packaged foods - Breakfast cereals and "health" drinks. I have written about so many brands that belong to these two categories. New brands are getting launched almost every month and it is challenging to stay informed of their marketing strategies. 

Sometime in June, I came across this new brand named "V-Nourish" launched by Veeba foods and promoted by none other than Shahrukh Khan. I'm a huge fan of his 90s movies, let me declare that upfront. 

What piqued my interest was that the brand was encouraging consumers to read nutrition labels. This was certainly the first brand to have ever used this strategy, in all my years of observing Indian advertisements (do correct me if I'm wrong).

The tagline being used is "Real ingredients, wholesome nutrition". The brand also stresses on these features - "No artificial flavors, no preservatives, no synthetic colors".

Needless to say, I was super curious to read the ingredients list. I searched for this pack in nearby supermarkets and medical stores but I couldn't find it. I searched for it on Amazon but no details on the ingredients list were available. I then posted on Instagram Stories asking for someone to take a picture of the nutrition label and share it with me. A follower took a pic and DMed me. After seeing the nutrition facts table, I wasn't fully sure if what I'm seeing is true. I followed up with v-nourish on Instagram and finally got hold of the nutrition labels. They have shared it under Parents Support in their website.

The section on "Understanding nutrition labels" gives useful information on how to read and interpret labels. Kudos to the brand for taking this effort. 

Let's look at the ingredients list of V-Nourish - Strawberry flavor.

Sugar, Maltodextrin
Milk Solids (Milk Protein Concentrate - 15%),
Freeze dried strawberries (7%),
Prebiotic (Inulin),
Minerals, Starch, Beet juice powder,
Dehydrated aloe vera extract,
Dehydrated ashwagandha extract,
Vitamins, Choline,
Probiotics (Lactobacillus acidophilus)

Contains Added flavors (Nature identical flavoring substances)

When I saw the pic shared by the Instagram follower, I was shocked to see the amount of sugar. "Am I seeing it right?", I wondered. The first ingredient listed is SUGAR. This pack contains a whopping 51.26 gm of sugar per 100 gm. More than 50% of the pack is SUGAR. The pack states "no extra sugar needs to be added to make this beverage". Each serving (20 gm) contains 10.25 gm or 2.5 tsp of sugar. The recommended usage is 2 serves daily, which means the child would end up consuming 5 tsp of sugar every day. 

What's the need for such high sugar in a nutritional supplement drink? Are we changing our kids' tastebuds to expect sugar whenever we want to feed them nutritious foods? Compared to other health drinks in the market, the sugar level in v-nourish is way too high. Why are the brands deciding how much sugar to add? Why not leave the decision to parents? Let us decide whether to add 1 tsp or 2 tsp of sugar. 

The second ingredient is Maltodextrin, a cheap white powder made from corn and primarily used as a carrier/bulking agent. It doesn't provide any nutrition but it spikes up insulin levels. High Sugar+Maltodextrin on a daily basis => Perfect recipe for early onset of Type 2 diabetes.

As the brand claims, they haven't added artificial strawberry flavor but have used dried strawberries, which is good.
Aloe vera and ashwagandha extract used is so minuscule - 100 gms of this pack contain only 0.75 gm of aloe vera and 0.20 gm of ashwagandha. 

The pack contains 14.7 gm of protein per 100 gm and the source is milk solids. Personally, I don't consider commercial diary to be of any nutritional value. I would rather let my body absorb protein from real, natural, plant-based, home-cooked foods. The same belief holds true for synthetic vitamins and minerals too.

Children need real foods - cereals, pulses, fruits, vegetables and nuts. Not sugar-loaded drinks with a laundry list of vitamins and minerals extracted from a factory.

"Read the label to make a good choice", says the brand. Yes, I have read your label and I have made the choice never to buy this pack. I don't want to pay a premium for sugar.

Aug 1, 2019

10 factors that impact our energy levels

Yesterday, I noticed a few popular food bloggers, promoting Protinex Chocolate flavor (that contains 32% sugar). The premise that they were setting (through attractive props and beautiful pics) is that when we are in our 30s/40s, we start to experience stamina loss, tiredness/fatigue and so they are drinking Protinex that helps them to stay energetic. No one cared to talk about the high sugar levels. 

And do note that they are ONLY showing a glass of Protinex drink in the picture. There is no way for us to know whether they are actually drinking it. Might sound funny, but this is a fact to remember. For all you know, they might have poured the drink in their kitchen sink after getting the perfect click and dumped the pack in their garbage bag.

I'm in my mid-30s now. So I fit perfectly into the segment that this brand (and various other protein drinks) is targeting.

The fear-mongering tactics that these brands employ seem to be working well among urban women. "Maybe, my tiredness is because of low protein intake", I'm sure this thought would have crossed many of our minds at some point while watching the ad or going through these brilliantly curated pics of Insta food influencers.

Energy is a concept that I'm personally fascinated to learn about. There have been days when my energy levels were over the rooftop and I'm striking off my to-dos one after another. There have also been days when I don't even feel like moving an inch, let alone do anything productive. 

The first step is to become aware of our energy levels. If you can, try to maintain an "energy tracker" (some call it a mood tracker) and observe if you can notice any patterns. 

Multiple factors influence our energy levels throughout the day. Here are 10 factors that I could think of, in no particular order:

  1. Menstrual cycles in women - During my period, my energy level dips down quite a bit. I don't exert myself during those days. I skip Yoga practice, cook very simple meals and rest in the afternoons if possible. In my opinion, all the "play tennis, jump around, run for marathons" messaging that sanitary napkin brands convey in their ads is just plain ridiculous. 

  2. Exercise and Physical Activity - Many of us believe that we need to have sufficient energy in order to do exercise or any physical activity. In reality, it works the other way around. When we do any form of exercise, our energy levels shoot up magically, our mood is upbeat and we generally feel happier because of the endorphins. A brisk walk, a good yoga workout, dancing or jogging/running can do wonders on our energy levels.

  3. How we deal with emotions - There are many incidents in our day-to-day lives that can have an impact on our emotions. A few days back, there were quite a few thoughts that kept bothering me and as a result, I couldn't get anything productive done that day. I opened my journal and wrote down (using a pen on a paper) all that was running through in my mind. After the 10 minutes of releasing everything onto the paper, my mind became free. I even got a few ideas to resolve the issues at the end of journaling. I have been journaling in Evernote app for a long time, but for the past few weeks, I have switched over to paper/pen. And I feel it is much more impactful. Do give it a try.

  4. Moon cycle - from my personal experience, I have learned that on full moon/new moon days, my energy levels shift quite a bit. Either I'm super active or super dull. Self-awareness is the key to understanding how we feel during such days. 

  5. Food and nutrition - This factor deserves a separate blog post in itself. The wrong combination of foods, increased caffeine intake, foods having high sugar, overeating etc all impact our energy levels. Recently, I came across this article titled "There's no such thing as a sugar rush". This passage totally resonated with me:
     The sugar rush is a myth. Rather than making people feel energized and hyped, the new research suggests eating sweet foods actually causes people to experience the opposite: fatigue and a lack of alertness.

  6. Lack of sleep/erratic sleep cycles - Sleep is absolutely essential for recovery and impacts our energy the next day. Sleep well, we wake up feeling fresh and energetic. Sleep for a few hours or have disturbed sleep, we wake up feeling groggy and irritated. There are so many things that expect us to sacrifice our sleep timings. Be it workload, studies or binge-watching, it is not worth sacrificing our precious sleep time. For the past 2 months, I have set a rule for myself that I will not use any gadgets/screens after 8:30PM. This habit has helped me to sleep early and wake up early.

  7. Exposure to Sunlight and nature - What once used to be so natural to us has now become something that we have to consciously plan for. Bright, sunny days are clear mood uplifters, makes us feel happier and joyful. The presence (or absence) of sunlight has a clear impact on my energy levels. I'm indoors most of the time, but I step out and go for a walk or at least sit under sunlight for 20-30 minutes in my balcony.

  8. Breathing - Stop reading this article, sit in a comfortable place, close your eyes and take 5 deep breaths. Do you feel different? Most of the times, our breathing is shallow. Conscious deep breathing a few times dispersed throughout the day will recenter our thoughts and energies. This doesn't require much effort on our side. 

  9. Being around with positive, inspiring people - All of us exude certain energies/vibrations. Be with a positive, spirited person for 5 minutes and you'll notice you feel upbeat and energized. Be with a negative, cynical person for 5 minutes and you'll feel drained of energy. This doesn't apply only to people whom we meet in person but also equally applicable for people whom we interact through phone calls, chats and social media. 

  10. Do what you love, love what you do - I believe that both of these are extremely important for a happy, fulfilling life. Identifying our interests and investing time in them every single day is as much important as loving and giving our best in tasks that we ought to get done. For some, cooking is a joyful activity, whereas, for others, it could be drudgery. Nevertheless, it is an important task for our good health. The moment we start to think, "Aaah, do I have to get up early every single day to pack tiffin for my kids? Do I have to spend so much time in the kitchen?", our energy and mood go for a toss. This is ONLY an example. There are many such day-to-day activities that we may not like to do but we end up doing anyway. Instead of cribbing about them and spoiling our mood, if we approach them with a positive mindset, we end up being happier and content.

In order to incorporate the points discussed, we require self-awareness and self-discipline, both of which need time and effort from our side. But in this age of money-rich, time-poor, convenience-seeking lifestyle, we are searching for quick-fix solutions to boost our energy levels, which these health drink(?) manufacturers are clearly aware of. Energy cannot be packed in a glass of Protinex, Women's Horlicks, Bournvita for women or any other drink. They only give you the perception of energy, which is short-lived.

Last but not the least, if you are doing well on these 10 factors and you still feel low on energy levels, do visit a doctor and get tests done for thyroid, Vitamin-B12, Vitamin-D3 and diabetes.

Jul 30, 2019

Cadbury Dairy Milk Chocolate 30% less sugar review

One of my Insta followers had DMed me to share my thoughts on the new Cadbury Dairy Milk with 30% less sugar. 

My criteria for picking products is quite simple - any brand that uses health-related claims in their promotions. That's the reason why you wouldn't have seen many reviews of typical chocolates or candies in my blog.

In my 20s, Dairy Milk used to be one of my favorite chocolates. I was never a big chocolate fan but whenever I wanted to eat a piece of chocolate, I used to choose Dairy Milk - the regular one (not the kozha kozha silk version). 

Dairy Milk wasn't on my radar of packaged food reviews, but this DM from a reader along with this media article with the attractive headline "Cadbury Dairy Milk Chocolate gets a healthier version with 30% less sugar" coaxed me to check out its ingredients.

From a brand perspective, quoting from this LiveMint article,

The company is betting that indulgence-seeking consumers who are also health-conscious will opt for the low-sugar variant.

Let's look at the comparison of the regular Dairy Milk along with the new less sugar version.

  1. Yes, it is true that the new one has 30% less sugar. What's shocking is the amount of sugar present in the regular chocolate - a whopping 57%. I'm sure many of us wouldn't have realized the high amounts of sugar in the first place.
  2. The Saturated Fat values still remain the same and the ingredient "Edible Vegetable Fat" is being used but no information shared on the source of this fat. The low sugar version contains the same emulsifiers and artificial flavouring substances, as compared to the regular chocolate.
  3. Given that the sugar values have reduced by 30%, I was hoping that the carbs value would also have reduced proportionately but it hasn't. Carbs are more or less the same.
  4. The ingredient "Soluble corn fibre" (SCF) contributes to the increase in carbs and fibre. On googling, I came across this medical research paper that talks about how SCF contributes to bone health. But I'm skeptical of it as the sample size is too small (14 women participated). There has been quite a discussion in the Keto community about this ingredient but mostly mixed responses. My conclusion - SCF is derived by processing corn syrup. There is nothing natural about it, even though some people claim that it can act as a prebiotic. SCF is typically used by food manufacturers as it is extremely cheap and can add bulk to processed foods. Some articles also state that SCF is nothing but resistant maltodextrin. 

All I'd like to suggest is this - Just because it is being promoted as 30% less sugar, let's not go overboard and stock up our fridge with loads of it and eat a pack whenever sugar/chocolate cravings hit us. It is still the same junk as compared to any other piece of chocolate. Let's get to the root cause of our cravings and address the real issue.

Jul 29, 2019

How to plan for Nutritional Variety?

This post has been lying in the draft mode for a year now. Finally, I made the time to complete it, along with a personal reflection.
Two incidents triggered me to work on this topic.

(1) Last July, I was delivering a talk on child nutrition to a group of young mothers. While discussing the topic of including more vegetables, I mentioned about the sheer variety of the native, local veggies available in India and how we could easily rotate the intake of vegetables once every 15-20 days. A couple of moms wondered if that is even possible. One of them told me that she usually ends up cooking the usual carrots, beans and potatoes.

(2) D seems to have taken a fascination towards buffet restaurants. Two of our family's favorite buffet places in Bangalore are Chutney Chang and Mango Greens (JP Nagar). Whenever we go to such buffet places, D knows exactly what she wants - pasta. She would have 2 servings of pasta, a bowl of cucumber/carrot slices and then head onto dessert section (mostly icecream, sometimes she would also eat chocolate mousse served in dessert spoons). She is happy at the end of her meal.

What do we adults do whenever we hit buffet restaurants for lunch? Not generalizing, but this is what happens mostly (including yours truly!)
First and foremost, we skip breakfast ;-)
We load up our plates with all possible foods (chaats, starters, soups, Indian main course, Western main course, Indian desserts, Western desserts and fruits in the end)
We tend to overeat, as we want to "receive maximum value" for the money we paid (Usually buffet meal is anywhere between Rs.500-Rs.800 in these places).
We might even order that tall glass of fruit juice (at an additional cost) that the waiters carry around the tables.
We come home and feel exhausted, maybe have a short (or a long) nap.
We wake up feeling groggy and intoxicated in the late evening.
We skip dinner, as our stomachs clearly scream, "no more food please, let me finish processing this load first"

Anyone can relate to this series of events? ;-)

After we experienced this cycle a few times, my husband and I decided that we will restrict our buffet restaurant outings to once in 6 months. On days we go for buffet lunch, we consciously make sure that we don't overeat.

How are these two incidents inter-connected?

Variety is the spice of life. We crave for variety in our foods. Given the easy availability of different kinds of cuisine, we would like to explore all of them. Depending on the food we eat, our digestive system secretes the required digestive enzymes to break down the food. Wrong food combinations and overloading the system with too many varieties in a single go can mess up the digestive process, resulting in bloating, acidity, constipation etc.

The current reality is - "We are overeating calories, but deficit on nutrients". Nutrient deficiency often leads to unwanted food cravings and various other health issues. 

The typical banana leaf meal served in South Indian cuisine is often made at home ONLY during special occasions. In Kerala, sadya meal is often prepared ONLY for Vishu and Onam. In Tamilnadu, the elaborate meal is made usually for Diwali and Pongal. In such meals, there will always be a special dish that helps in digestion (Inji puli, Diwali legiyam, rasam, spiced buttermilk). 

I have realized that the more variety I eat in a single meal, I find it difficult to digest and I end up feeling lethargic and drowsy after such a meal. We don't need to overdo variety in a single meal.

At the same time, our nutritional requirements (especially the micro-nutrients) can be met ONLY if we include a variety of vegetables, fruits, cereals and pulses in our diet. I don't prefer to take any vitamin/mineral supplements whatsoever.

So to ensure I get all the adequate nutrients, I've been planning my meals in such a way that 

"we eat less variety in a meal and more variety in a month"

The diligent tracker in me prepared this spreadsheet to track the variety of vegetables, fruits, greens, cereals and pulses in my meals this month (July 2019). The ones highlighted in blue indicate that I have included them in my meals in some way or the other.

As you can see, it is quite easy to rotate vegetable intake once every 15-20 days. Keep this list handy. You don't have to stock up all of them in one go. Whenever you go for weekly shopping, make sure you are buying a different set of veggies.

I'm consciously avoiding green leafy vegetables in monsoon season and will resume eating them once the rains subside.
Conscious meal planning helps us bring variety to our meals and makes cooking an interesting activity. Do you agree? :-)

Jul 26, 2019

Is breakfast the important meal of the day?

If I had answered this question a couple of years back, I would have said, "Yes, absolutely....breakfast is the important meal of the day". But now my answer is different - "All meals eaten AFTER you have felt hungry are important meals of the day". I'm not relying on scientific research to back up my answer but more to do with my personal experience. 

I have observed that on some mornings, I feel hungry enough to eat a solid breakfast. For eg, after an intense yoga practice today, I was quite hungry and so I grabbed a plate of dosais with dry coconut podi. A couple of days back, although my yoga practice was intense, I didn't feel hungry to eat and so grabbed a glass of vegan banana smoothie. By noon, I was hungry and ate a wholesome, homemade lunch. 

I'm slowly shifting my dinner timings to 7PM and so I fast for around 12 hours. I feel light and refreshed in the mornings. I'm no longer eating 3-4 meals based on set timings. 

I'm not advocating to skip breakfast. All I'm saying is to listen to your own body and eat only when you are hungry. There will be days when you feel a lot hungry in the mornings. Have some fresh fruits and nuts handy, make a quick homemade breakfast (not the breakfast cereal junk). On days when you are not hungry, give your body some time to finish the work it is engaged in. People who write about intermittent fasting talk about two phases that our body goes through - building phase and elimination phase. This makes a lot of sense to me. Again, don't immediately put me in the bucket of IF/Keto/LCHF and conclude that I'm gonna recommend a tall mug of bulletproof coffee 🙂

I read quite a bit about nutrition and follow the practices that I find relevant and sustainable for me. Please do your own due diligence before jumping onto anything.

Some might say "listen to your body" is nonsense. Let it be, that's your opinion. You could also try to prove me wrong by sharing some research articles. 

All I want to convey is that this idea - "listen to your body" is working for me and is guiding me well on what/when to eat.

Jul 24, 2019

Alarming levels of Sodium in packaged foods

Based on FSSAI's draft notification, I had earlier analyzed the sugar levels in various, popular packaged foods. If you haven't seen it, do check it out.

This post is all about sodium. As much as we give attention to sugar levels in packaged foods, we need to look for sodium quantities too.

According to WHO's report on "sodium intake for adults and children",
Elevated sodium intake has been associated with a number of NCDs (including hypertension, cardiovascular disease and stroke), and decreasing sodium intake may reduce blood pressure and the risk of associated NCDs

Higher sodium intake was associated with higher risk of incident stroke, fatal stroke and fatal coronary heart disease.

WHO recommends a reduction to <2 g/day sodium (5 g/day salt) in adults (strong recommendation).

The recommended maximum level of intake of 2 g/day sodium in adults should be adjusted downward based on the energy requirements of children relative to those of adults.

From my "Master List", I looked for the products with high sodium levels and compared the values with the thresholds prescribed by FSSAI in the draft notification

 As you can see, the values are alarmingly higher. In all these examples, it is more than double/triple the upper threshold values.

    Many brands don't even list sodium in their nutrition facts table. If and when the draft notification comes into effect, sodium will be made mandatory. Until then, it is better to avoid salty foods that don't list sodium in nutrition facts. 

    The brands listed in the above table are only a handful of examples. Do check the sodium levels in other similar brands (Amul cheese, Sunfeast Yippee noodles, etc).

Jul 23, 2019

Do we want to turn our observations into problems?

There will be some lines in a book that will leave you with a lasting impression even after you have finished reading it. As I was reading "Atomic Habits", this particular line made that impact on me.

Peace occurs when you don’t turn your observations into problems. You notice a cue, a bit of information, an event. If you do not desire to act on what you observe, then you are at peace.

Many times, we set goals or worry about certain issues based on what we read, what we see, what we hear, etc. For eg, "walk 10000 steps a day" has become one of the popular goals related to fitness. We read about it in news articles, see the step counter updates from our friends on social media and come across deals on pedometers. Firstly, it is important for us to think whether this is a goal worth aiming for. Is this a mere observation or do we want to embrace it as a problem to solve? Being physically active throughout the day is very important but does "walk 10000 steps a day" the right means to achieve the same? Is this a habit being perpetuated by the makers of pedometers? Something to think about. I'm not suggesting that this habit is wrong. All I'm saying is this - let's question it first instead of blindly following the herd. 

One of the habits I started tracking was "eat 3 servings of vegetables and 2 servings of fruits in a day". I have observed this goal in many articles/books I have read. But when I started observing my eating patterns, this felt too cumbersome. What does a serving mean? A cup? A bowl? measurement in gms? In my style of cooking, there are veggies added to sambhar, chutney, dal, etc. How do I account for these? Do I want to measure the quantity before eating? It indeed takes away the pleasure of eating (in my opinion, feel free to disagree). After having thought about all these, I decided I didn't want to pursue this habit. 

Another observation that I'm sure many of us might have noticed is the plethora of "sale" related emails/banners etc. The month of July is famous for such discount-focused sales in almost all retail clothing shops. The 50% / 75% number will be in big, bold font whereas the word "upto" preceding the discount percentage would be in tiny font size. But if we visit the stores, the clothes which we like would be under "New releases" or "No discounts" category whereas the ones which look dull/faded would be under "30% off" category. I had been disappointed a few times in the past, looking at the collection under discounts. I have also made the mistake of buying a few clothes at a discounted price but only to realize that they wear out after a couple of washes. What a waste of money! Not to forget the waste of precious time - thanks to the long queue right outside the trial room and billing counter. This year, I haven't bought any clothes for myself during this discount sale. I was getting a ton of promotional emails on a daily basis from Myntra/Westside/Soch/Max etc but I'm unsubscribing from them. Not interested to "convert these observations into my problems".

Jul 22, 2019

Book Review: Atomic Habits by James Clear

This book has been on my wishlist for quite some time. I finally got hold of a copy thanks to a nice Kindle deal (currently it is even better - Rs.149. Grab it before it goes away).

What a fascinating read it was! The author has broken down in detail the habit formation process with so many interesting case studies. He defines a habit as "a routine or behavior that is performed regularly—and, in many cases, automatically."

In the first chapter, he sets the context on the importance and role of daily habits in our life.

The quality of our lives often depends on the quality of our habits. Success is the product of daily habits—not once-in-a-lifetime transformations.

The section on why one should focus on systems/processes (that translate to habits) rather than end-goals was thought-provoking.

Goals are about the results you want to achieve. Systems are about the processes that lead to those results. 
Goals are good for setting a direction, but systems are best for making progress.
You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems.

The other aspect that I found so relatable is the role of identity that helps us to be consistent with our habits. For eg, I tell myself that I'm a health-conscious person who doesn't eat packaged foods. Not "I want to avoid packaged foods". You see the difference there? 

The ultimate form of intrinsic motivation is when a habit becomes part of your identity. It’s one thing to say I’m
the type of person who wants this. It’s something very different to say I’m the type of person who is this.

True behavior change is identity change. You might start a habit because of motivation, but the only reason
you’ll stick with one is that it becomes part of your identity.
When your behavior and your identity are fully aligned, you are no longer pursuing behavior change. You are
simply acting like the type of person you already believe yourself to be.

The author then goes onto share a 4 law behavior change framework that will help us build better habits (or break bad habits) along with interesting strategies to accomplish the same.
  • Make it obvious => Implementation intention, habit stacking, setting up your environment
  • Make it attractive => Temptation bundling, the role of the tribe
  • Make it easy => Law of least effort, commitment device
  • Make it satisfying => immediate rewards, accountability partner

Towards the end, he talks about identifying the right set of habits and pursuing them for meaningful reasons. There were many aha moments for me, particularly in the last chapter. I was highlighting so many phrases and passages. A couple of my most favorite lines below:

The work that hurts you less than it hurts others is the work you were made to do.

When you observe a cue, but do not desire to change your state, you are content with the current situation.
Happiness is not about the achievement of pleasure (which is joy or satisfaction), but about the lack of desire.

Though one can find similarities with the cue-craving-response-reward flow from Charles Duhigg's The Power of Habit, this book expands on the flow a little more in-depth. There is also a bit of similarity with BJ Fogg's Tiny Habits concepts. Nevertheless, the ideas explained are cohesive and easy to follow.

It is a voluminous book. Though easy to read, it does require enough focus and attention to grasp the concepts. Invest your time in this book if you find habit formation an interesting topic to explore.

Jul 19, 2019

Digital minimalism journey continues

Continuing from my earlier post, I wanted to share a couple of changes I made with respect to my digital minimalism journey.

I took a break from Instagram for the first 10 days of July. During this break, I contemplated about numerous ways of how to consciously use this app without accessing it at the slightest hint of boredom or be available throughout the day. I finally decided to have a dedicated time slot of 30 minutes in a day where I would install the app, share a few posts in feed/stories, respond to comments/DMs, check my timeline and uninstall the app. I usually would like to sit down and relax for 30 minutes post-lunch and so 1:30-2PM felt like a perfect time for Instagram use. For the past 9 days, I'm following this practice and it feels so much better. Instead of responding to DMs and comments as and when they come, I batch process them in the 30 min slot and this saves me a ton of time. Instead of posting a picture as soon as I take, I gather them throughout the day and post in one go. I'm still engaging with my followers and enjoying the process but it feels like I'm in control of the app and not the other way around. Not in favor of "app usage scheduling/blocking" apps, the install/uninstall option seems to be the simplest in my opinion.

For many months, we didn't have a Netflix connection at home. We took away the TV and DTH connection back in 2014. We had an iMac at home, which was used for various purposes - work, play and entertainment. Sometime in Sep last year, our 6-year old iMac went kaput and we couldn't fix it. During Diwali season, we decided to purchase a TV. So along with the TV, we got a Netflix connection too. We succumbed to the Diderot effect.

The Diderot Effect states that obtaining a new possession often creates a spiral of consumption which leads you to acquire more new things. As a result, we end up buying things that our previous selves never needed to feel happy or fulfilled.

For the first 2-3 months, I was excited to watch many documentaries and cookery shows, caught up on a few Bollywood movies that I had been wanting to watch. The husband was so happy to revisit the Star Trek series. Ofcourse, D was also watching many kids specific programmes. Last month, husband and I realized that we weren't watching much but rather just browsing by scrolling through the various lists. None of the movies/series seem to catch our attention. I can't tolerate any of the popular dark, violent series and I'm extremely cautious about not getting into any series that I might end up binge-watching. The "good wife" experience has scarred me for life 😉

We have Amazon Prime for entertainment anyway. So in a whim, we decided to cut Netflix for a month and see what happens. Turns out that we don't miss Netflix at all. This decision has helped us save a good chunk of money (Rs.800 per month is quite high by Indian standards) and most importantly, get some time off from devices.
The battle for attention is going on and only the strong willed would survive. 

So two important steps in July....and I'll continue to identify other areas where I can minimize my digital usage.

Jul 17, 2019

Sugar levels in various packaged foods

This is a question I often get - "How much of sugar is bad?"

As I had written in an earlier post, the limit for maximum added sugar is around 5-6 tsp per day. Unless someone gets into the habit of reading nutrition labels diligently, it is hard to figure out whether this limit is exceeded in a day, given that there are numerous packaged foods loaded with sugar that have pervaded our daily meals.

Given this situation, I find the guideline prescribed by FSSAI in the draft notification to be a valid benchmark that we can all refer to.

The energy (kcal) from added sugars should not exceed 10% of the total energy provided by the packaged food.

When a packaged food brand exceeds this threshold, then the brand should highlight the sugar value in RED in front of the pack. This is currently at the draft stage. IF and WHEN this gets approved, brands would still have 3 years to get this implemented.

Is it worth waiting that long, when our health is at stake? Definitely not. So I invested around 3 hours to compile this list of popular packaged foods and their sugar levels. It is shocking to note how much sugar these brands contain compared to the prescribed 10% threshold.

Under "health biscuits" category, the sugar values seem to be closer to the 10% threshold (still higher) but do take note of the high saturated fats (primarily from palm oil). The prescribed upper threshold is 2.6 gm per 100 gm whereas most of these biscuits contain way above than that.

I shall continue to update this list with more sugar-loaded junk. 

Threshold limit for sugar proposed by FSSAI (value of energy from added sugar as a percentage of total calories provided)10%For bakery products, upper limit for saturated fat is 2.6 gm per 100 gm
CategoryBrand NameCalories and Sugar values based onCalories (kcal)Sugar (in gms)% of kcal from sugarSaturated Fat (in gms)
Breakfast cerealsKelloggs Chocosper 30 gm serving size116931.03%
Breakfast cerealsKelloggs Thandai badam corn flakesper 30 gm serving size1309.529.23%
Breakfast cerealsKelloggs Special Kper 30 gm serving size1097.527.52%
Breakfast cerealsSoulfull ragi bites choco fillsper 100 gm43224.923.06%
Breakfast cerealsKelloggs Granola - Almonds and Cranberriesper 40 gm serving size1787.216.18%
Health drinksYakultper 65 ml serving size501080.00%
Health drinksBournvitaper 100 gm3933737.66%
Health drinksHorlicks Chocolate flavourper 100 gm3703032.43%
Health drinksHorlicks Growth Plus Chocolate flavourper 100 gm38026.728.11%
Health drinksHorlicks Protein Plus Chocolate flavourper 100 gm37023.525.41%
Health drinksComplan Chocolate flavourper 100 gm4192422.91%
Health drinksPediasureper 100 gm46222.219.22%
Dairy productsSunFeast Wonderz fruit n milk mango flavourper 100 ml8614.567.44%
Dairy productsEpigamia Greek Yoghurt smoothieper 100 ml78.7512.1561.71%
Dairy productsHersheys milkshake cookies n cremeper 200 ml168.32047.53%
Dairy productsCavin's milkshakeper 100 ml10511.744.57%
Dairy productsEpigamia Greek Strawberry flavored yoghurtper 100 gm110.6611.2540.67%
Dairy productsPaperboat vanilla milkshakeper 100 ml111.31139.53%
Dairy productsDanone blueberry flavored yoghurtper 100 gm1261238.10%
Kid's specific treatsBournvita biscuitsper 100 gm4573026.26%6.8
Health biscuitsParle Nutricrunch honey & oatsper 100 gm48518.715.42%8.7
Health biscuitsUnibic daily digestive oatmeal cookiesper 100 gm4991814.43%13.5
Health biscuitsMcVities Digestive biscuitsper 100 gm48916.113.17%10.7
Health biscuitsParle Nutricrunch digestive biscuitsper 100 gm48914.812.11%9.2
Health biscuitsBritannia Nutrichoice Digestive biscuitsper 100 gm49314.511.76%10
Kid's specific treatsKinder Joyper 20 gm serving size10910.237.43%
Kid's specific treatsOreo cream biscuitsper 100 gm48038.632.17%9.7
Kid's specific treatsLotte Chocopieper 100 gm434.4833.731.03%
Kid's specific treatsSunfeast Dark Fantasy Chocofillsper 100 gm50437.629.84%11.4
Kid's specific treatsBritannia Treat JimJam biscuitsper 100 gm48333.527.74%9.5
Packaged JuicesTropicana mixed fruit juiceper 100 ml5613.797.86%
Packaged JuicesB Natural Himalayan mixed fruitper 100 ml521184.62%
Packaged JuicesPaperboat Alphonso aamper 100 ml6212.4680.39%
Packaged JuicesReal mixed fruit juiceper 100 ml56857.14%
Packaged JuicesPaperboat aamrasper 100 ml658.4351.88%

P.S. The trigger for this post 
A few days back, I was browsing through the FSSAI draft notification document. 
D: What are you reading?
Me: Govt uncle is going to mark junk food packets in red color if it contains a lot of sugar and sodium. So when people shop, they can decide whether to buy packs marked with red color or not
D: hmm, can we see them in the supermarket tomorrow?
Me: No ma, it will take at least 3 years to see the red coded packs in supermarkets
D: Why wait that long? Let's take a red sketch pen, go to the supermarket and mark the bad junk foods ourselves

Instead of marking them in one supermarket, I decided to compile this list for quick reference. Hope you would refer to this list when you go shopping next time.

Jul 16, 2019

How I track my habits

Habit formation is a topic that I'm extremely fascinated about. I devour books and essays on this topic, as the concepts branch out across a wide variety of fields such as psychology, behavior, motivation, economics, decision making, sociology, anthropology, evolution etc. 

Our brains like to run on autopilot and that's one of the primary reasons that we should be conscious of our habits, both conscious and unconscious ones.

James Clear in his book "Atomic Habits" states

"Habits reduce cognitive load and free up mental capacity, so you can allocate your attention to other tasks"

Habits impact our lives in many ways - be it our health, relationships, time management, sleep and even how we respond to our emotions.

There are some fantastic books on this subject. I'm almost winding up Atomic Habits. Charles Duhigg's The power of habit is another insightful read. From a technology perspective, Nir Eyal's Hooked is another favourite of mine.

The objective of this post is to talk about my "Habit Tracker". A few years back, I came across Seinfeld's "don't break the chain" strategy and got quite inspired by the idea. I have tried various mobile apps to track my daily habits. I have also tried using Evernote to track my daily habits in a note. For the last 2 months, I went back to good old paper and pen. In my journal, I have jotted down the habits for the month as rows and the days as columns. Every morning, I sit down and track whether I achieved the habits for the previous day. 
The habits where my hit rate is relatively high in the past 2 months are
  1. No screen usage after 8:30PM
  2. Daily evening prayer at 6PM
  3. Tea/coffee ONLY 2 times a day
  4. Read at least 15 pages a day
Although many experts recommend that we work on only one habit at a time, I prefer trying many habits and see which ones I'm motivated to work on and which ones I avoid. One key takeaway for me is that 

In order to be consistent, the habit definition needs to be clear, precise and elicit a binary response - "Have I done this habit today or not?".  

In June, one of the habits I tried was "Eat 3 servings of vegetables and 2 servings of fruits a day". The concept of "servings" is a bit vague in my habit definition. For my style of cooking, it isn't easy to quantify servings size. So I decided to remove this habit in my July list.

I believe it is important for us to consciously work on our daily habits, keep iterating and learning what works and what doesn't. 

In this article on why goals are overrated, Mark Manson explains the need to focus on habits

Goals are a one-time bargain. They are the spending mindset. “I will spend X amount of energy to receive Y reward.” Habits are an investing mindset. Habits require one to invest one’s efforts for a little while and then take the rewards of that effort and re-invest them in a greater effort to form even better habits.

I'd highly recommend to anyone reading this post to think about the habits you would want to inculcate and start tracking the same on a daily basis. Dreams/Goals/bucket list can give us direction but it's our daily habits that will help us make progress towards them.

Jul 12, 2019

NatureFresh Acti Heart Cooking Oil Review

Thanks to yet another sponsored ad, I came across this brand of cooking oil. The product name has all the right words to capture our attention - nature, fresh, heart etc. I looked into their ads on youtube. Such fear-inducing messaging and story plot being used! The background music and the voices are so depressing. 

So what exactly does this heart-friendly(?) cooking oil made of?

It is a blended oil comprising of
  • refined rice bran oil (50% by weight)
  • refined rapeseed low erucic acid (canola) oil (50% by weight)
Refined oils are one of the key contributors to inflammation in the body. It is ironic that this refined blended oil brand talks about inflammation and how it affects our heart in their ads.

Canola oil is relatively new in India and is being pitched as heart-friendly oil. Where exactly this canola oil comes from?

Canola oil is first and foremost, a genetically modified product. According to this source

Rapeseed oil is made from the rapeseed plant, specifically from the seeds of the rape or rapeseed plant, which is a member of the mustard (Brassicaceae) family. It was in the early 1970s that canola was first bred from rapeseed at the University of Manitoba in Canada by Keith Downey and Baldur R. Stefansson. In 1998, “the most disease- and drought-resistant canola variety to date” was developed using genetic modification, and this is how the majority of recent varieties are produced. Rapeseed oil and canola oil are often used interchangeably.

Wild rapeseed oil contains large amounts of erucic acid, which is known to cause health problems, so the canola plant was developed from rapeseed in order to use it to produce a food-grade canola oil with lower erucic acid levels. The name of canola oil was originally LEAR (low erucic acid rapeseed) but for marketing purposes was changed to canola oil. This word was derived from the combination of “Canada” and “ola,” meaning oil.

You can read through the same article to understand the dangers of canola oil.

Also, do note the ingredients list for the presence of two other synthetic additives:
1. Antioxidant (INS 319) - TBHQ (Tertiary Butylhydroquinone) is used to increase shelf life and prevent rancidity. This additive triggers many harmful effects - vomiting, nausea, hyperactivity, asthma, convulsions, liver enlargements, neurotoxic effects etc. The shelf life listed on the label is 9 months. Just because the brand wants to ensure the product stays on shelves longer, do we have to consume such chemicals?

2. Antifoaming agent (INS 900a) -  Polydimethylsiloxane. The allowed daily intake is 0–1.5 mg/kg body weight per day. 
This oil contains trans fats too. 100 gm contains < 1.5 gm of trans fats. 
As I was reading through reviews on Amazon, I noticed that a few dieticians are recommending this oil. The reviews all look quite similar. Not sure how much they were paid to write such positive reviews.

People in the US are realizing the ill-effects of such refined oils and switching to healthier alternatives like coconut oil and clarified butter (ghee). But here in India, we are ditching our native, traditional oils and switching to canola oil and olive oil for Indian cooking. Enna kodumai saravanan idhu? I know I use this phrase quite a bit, but no other phrase can explain better as to what's happening currently in the food industry in India.

As I had written in my earlier article on olive oil, I prefer to use cold-pressed coconut oil, sesame oil and groundnut oil for my regular cooking needs. I use very limited oil in my cooking and I make deep-fried foods once a week.


Jul 11, 2019

Aashirvaad Nature's superfoods Gluten Free Flour review

The diet terms such as "vegan", "gluten free", "low carb" etc are being used liberally by food brands - be it the product name, FoP labels, advertisements, influencer marketing collateral etc.

One such brand is this newly launched "gluten free" flour by Aashirvaad at a whopping price of Rs.190 per kg. 

Before we jump in and buy products labelled as "gluten free", it is important to check out the ingredients list.

Source: Screenshot taken from ( ) on 11th Jul 2019 12:30PM IST

This pack of Aashirvaad's gluten free flour is made with
Jowar flour
Flaked rice flour
Ragi flour
Dehydrated potato
Milk Solids
Thickener (INS 415)
Psyllium Husk powder
Emulsifier (INS 471)
Iodised salt

  1. Yes, all the ingredients are gluten free but I don't see the need for many of them here. For eg, what do they mean by Starch? I presume it is corn starch (corn flour). Why hasn't the brand clearly stated what the source of starch is?
  2. What's the need for milk solids? 
  3. Even if the above 2 points aren't that critical, one shouldn't ignore the two additives used
    1. INS 415 - Xanthan gum; used as a thickener and as a substitute for gluten. Aggravates food intolerances, asthma and skin irritations
    2. INS 471 - Mono- and di- glycerides of fatty acids - used as emulsifier (prevents ingredients from separating). Usually extracted from soy if it is plant based, which implies that there are high chances of it being GMO.
Traditional preparations such as Jowar bhakris, ragi rotis, bajra rotis, akki rotis etc are made with gluten free flours WITHOUT the need for such additives. Once we learn how to make them, they are so easy to prepare. For binding, boiled raw banana, boiled sweet potato or boiled potato can be used. They aren't absolutely necessary. Warm water is more than sufficient. There are plenty of videos/recipes available. 

1 kg of organic jowar flour is Rs.66 on BigBasket. Why do we need to pay Rs.190 for this pack of gluten free flour?

It is our choice to follow the diet we are comfortable with, but let's not allow ourselves to be fooled by smart marketing.


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